O Lord, you have enticed me and I was enticed; you have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone
mocks me…. But the Lord is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my perse-
cutors will stumble, and they will not prevail. (Jeremiah 20:7,11)
Jeremiah was by all odds the loneliest of the great prophets of Old Testament times. God called him to his ministry in the late 7th century B.C. while Israel was still suffering from the 55 year reign of the evil King Manasseh. Manasseh had undone most of the social and spiritual reforms of his predecessor Hezekiah and turned the nation back to pagan practices, the worship of idols and even human sacrifice. Jeremiah was called to his ministry in the face of a nation which had forsaken its God. Add to that the looming threat of the Babylonian Empire to the east, a threat which Jeremiah saw as God’s punishment for Israel’s many sins.
Jeremiah would suffer much for his witness to God’s wrath and God’s justice. The verses just before this morning’s record how he was struck and humiliated by being bound hand and foot in the stocks. Other passages tell of his being mocked and imprisoned and cast into the mud at the bottom of a well. His prophetic warnings to the king of God’s judgment upon his nation were met by utter rejection and the burning of his parchments. Given his physical and emotional suffering, it is little wonder that some Bible scholars believe Jeremiah may have been in the mind of the writer of those haunting words in the later chapters of Isaiah: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised and we held him of no account.” (Isaiah 53:4)
Who among us can blame Jeremiah for finally questioning God’s call to him to become a prophet? He cries out, “O Lord, you have enticed me….the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.” When we try honestly to follow God’s leading it can indeed be a lonely enterprise. Remember the psalm from this morning’s liturgy. Of all the psalms the 69th is among the most mournful: The writer complains to God: “Surely for your sake have I suffered reproach, and shame has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my own kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.” (vv. 8-9) Who among us hasn’t encountered bitterness or resentment or even outright hostility when we have followed the dictates of our conscience? I recall two women from another parish whose sons had become alienated from them. One son had been drawn away into a fundamentalist sect by his wife who despised everything his mother stood for. The son of the other woman could not adjust to his mother’s depression after the death of her husband from Alzheimer’s Disease. She kept reaching out to her son every way she knew how, but he cut her off completely.
I suspect all of us have known such loneliness either in our own families or among friends. And Jesus of course speaks of it in this morning’s Gospel from Matthew 10. What he is really saying is that we’re called to follow the way of God above all, come what may: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me,” he says, “is not worthy of me.” And that certainly doesn’t mean that we’re to be unloving; it is simply a matter of allegiance. If we really and truly love God above all, our love for others will be all the more honest and wholehearted—and if despite our best efforts reconciliation is impossible, God will sustain us.
That is the bedrock faith that Jeremiah displays after he gets his complaints off his chest: “But the Lord is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail….O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind …to you I have committed my cause.” Jeremiah’s faith is inspiring, but it will continue to be tested—just as ours is, over and over again. Before the end of Jeremiah’s ministry the armies of Babylon will indeed overwhelm what is left of Israel. (A century and a half earlier the northern Kingdom of Israel had been swallowed up by the Assyrians.) In 587 Jeremiah’s worst fears will come true as thousands of the citizens of the southern Kingdom of Judah are herded across the Arabian Desert to exile in Babylon. Yet Jeremiah will always be remembered for the eternal hope he holds out in the 31st chapter of the book that bears his name. Like all great prophets he sees the bigger picture: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah….I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (vv. 31,33) And so it would come to pass in the fullness of God’s time—long after the ministry of Jeremiah.
As with the prophets of old, some of whom like Jeremiah suffered hugely, and like those who today take their faith seriously and seek to walk in the way of Christ, the pilgrimage can be a lonely one. But there is a particular beauty about those who take their loneliness in stride and have the love of God written on their hearts. One of those, who touched my life deeply, was Bill Cartwright. I want to tell you his story.
Bill was born in western Massachusetts, somewhere around 1900. I first got to know him when I was a freshman in college. He was an assistant at the college library and a member of the bass section at St. John’s Episcopal Church. I ran into him frequently at both places. By some accident of birth he lived his entire life with significant disabilities. Bill’s face was terribly disfigured—blind in one eye, his mouth twisted in an odd shape and prone to drooling. One arm and hand were almost totally useless, drawn up at an angle in front of him, yet able to hold a hymnbook. One leg was considerably shorter than the other so he walked with a pronounced limp. I used to walk and sit beside him for the year or two when I sang in St. John’s choir. For all his disabilities he had a remarkable voice and I learned a lot from him. I was also vaguely aware that he must have some loneliness in his life.
But it wasn’t until twelve years after my graduation that I began to experience the faith and the beauty of this man in the midst of his loneliness. After a stint in the Coast Guard and the business world, and then seminary and a small parish in the West, I was called back to Williamstown to be rector of St. John’s. (And that, incidentally, was an example of God’s great sense of humor. I had not distinguished myself in college academically, athletically or socially, and here I was called to lead a fairly sophisticated congregation with academic types among its more prominent members.) Bill, however, became a very dear friend. He continued singing in the choir and by his life’s end I believe he had sung for over sixty years. But there was so much more.
I needed someone to edit the weekly bulletin, and so I asked Bill. Somehow I had discovered that he was able to bang out copy with his one good hand on an old mechanical typewriter. And as an assistant in the library he was more than usually literate. He did a good job; but it was the sweetness of his character which shone through more and more. Never once did I hear him complain about his lot in life. He was unfailingly gracious to everyone he knew—including a very temperamental organist and choir director who got furious at him onetime. I called on him one afternoon. His home was a small room on the second floor of a rooming house in town. There I discovered one of the secrets of his life. Around him on tables, bureaus and his desk were pictures of his mother and father who had surrounded him with love and filled him with faith in his formative years. Love does beget love.
The final secret came shortly before his death. He ended up in a half of a room in a local nursing home. When I last brought him communion he lay on his bed and I sat beside him, the curtain drawn for a measure of privacy. In his halting voice he spoke the responses from memory, spoke them strongly, faithfully. There was no sense of loneliness; the presence of Christ was palpable. He received the Body and Blood with upturned face and a grateful heart, and soon thereafter slipped away into the arms of his waiting Lord. Bill’s covenant with God, like Jeremiah’s, was a covenant of the heart. And there is none greater.